Three years ago, after getting fed up of hearing the term “abeed” (the Arabic word for slave) being used by some Arab Americans to refer to Black people, I embarked on From this study, I was involved in a social media campaign to drop the “A-word” which then evolved into the , an organization established upon promoting racial justice among Muslims. Since then, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has become a household name; there have been more non-Black Muslims organizing with Black folks against anti-Black racism, including Muslims for Ferguson, and there have been numerous sessions dealing with the issue of 300-101 exam intra-Muslim racism at several Islamic conferences and in Islamic centers in America.
We still, however, are far from being a utopian community in which we are racism free.
The reality is that racism among Muslims has always been an issue, and it will continue until the end of time. We can work to mitigate it, but just like other social ills which stem from diseases of the heart, bigotry based upon ethnicity, tribal affiliation and skin color is a universal reality within the human social condition influenced by the devil.
Outside of mere individual acts of bigotry, the racism that is most harmful in the Muslim community and the world in general relates to positional power. Racism by persons who believe that they are superior, which causes them to look down upon or marginalize others based upon a perceived threat due to a feeling entitlement is what plagues much of the Ummah in the West. This is actually the framework of Iblis who was a leader from the Jinn. He felt threatened by Adam (peace be upon him) when Allah (Mighty & Sublime) stated that He was making a new khalifah (a chief, or leader) on the Earth, thus replacing Iblis. Iblis then stated, “I am better than him [Adam]; You created me from fire and created him from clay.” (Surah al-‘Araf, Ayah 12)
The issue relating to positional power and racism translates itself into two predominant forms from my vantage point. The first expression is what the leadership of Islamic institutions look like, which then influences who represents Muslims to greater societies. The other expression relates to who can marry whom, in particular, how it affects and actually disempowers Muslim women.
Since I am an African American, I will focus more on the American Muslim community’s institutions. Most national Muslim organizations do not properly reflect the attitudes and concerns of the whole community, in part due to ethnic chauvinism. This can be seen easily by the lack of diversity on the board of directors of organizations and staff, to the faces referred to by the media to speak about the successes, as well as the challenges, of American Muslims. Besides one national organization, the rest do not come anywhere close to representing the diversity of the American Muslim community. A majority of them are South-Asian and/or Arab-American dominated organizations that project themselves as inclusive but are in fact facades of inclusivity. For instance, that 1/3 of the American Muslim community is Black, yet not properly represented in leadership of these boards and staffers, but then are deemed good enough to speak at national conferences and fundraisers, reflects the implicit bias which exists in these organizations. In many masjids, when it comes to the board of trustees, the country and the village of that country becomes a prerequisite, though not explicitly stated in the by-laws, about who can serve in leadership capacities.
The issue of marriage is part of the structural racism, which exists, but has more immediate and direct impact on people’s lives. Though Prophet Muhammad (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) was very clear when stating that marriage should not be blocked due to ethnic differences or skin color, this issue runs rampant among Muslims in the West. It reflects itself in contrived standards of beauty; in many cases, Muslim men seek to marry non-Muslim women, predominately White women, to the neglect of sisters within the Muslim community who are Black and Brown. Though families at times do not like such “love marriages,” parents seem to be more inclined not to disown their sons from marrying Christian women. The same, however, does not hold true for Muslim women who are guided by Islamic law in terms of needing a mahram and the disallowance, according to all schools of thought, for them to marry men of other faiths. Hence, Muslim women who are Black and Brown are increasingly caught in the bind of being passed over for marriage for Christian women, who are usually White, while at the same time being prohibited or facing being possibly disowned by their parents if they marry Muslim men outside of the parents’ nationalities or of different skin colors; usually darker equals more unacceptable, although it may be said that White male reverts also find the same problems.
Many Muslims perceive that such problems will solve themselves on their own over time with the next and allegedly more tolerant generation of youth. I strongly disagree with that premise.
America is as racist as ever, and this same argument was made back in the 1960’s, that the Baby Boomers would make America less racist. Looking at Muslims more specifically, all one has to do is to look at what took place in Islamic history, when the Persians and Africans faced discrimination in the governments of Bani Umayyah and Bani Abbas, to the racism which Black Iraqis face to this day in Basra. Structural issues simply do not fix themselves on their own. There must be the will to deliberately deal with the issue of racism among Muslims in a holistic manner to bring some institutional change.
First, there needs to be spaces in which people can tell their stories, so they can have their concerns and pain heard. I have recently facilitated a few town-hall discussions in which people had the opportunity to both be heard and to hear the stories of others. There are some in our community with malicious intent, but there are many who simply need their awareness raised through multiple discussions due to their privilege shielding them from the reality of intra-Muslim racism. People are not void of empathy, and creating spaces enable the ability to empathize is needed.
Beyond discussions, there also needs to be intentional suhbah, or sittings, in which people are brought together to socialize, eat and have fun with one another. It has to be intentional suhbah because even in communities where there is ethnic diversity, that diversity is usually restricted to prayer areas, not diversity in people’s homes and social gatherings. Even in community dinners or functions, people of like groups normally congregate with each other and this then displays itself as ethnic tables. Intentional suhbah, as the Prophet (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) had with the People of the Veranda in Medina with the brotherhood/sisterhood compact in which he paired persons off to be confidants, was a very deliberate act which we should model in the Prophetic tradition.
The cultural shift regarding the issue of marriage, frankly, is an issue that our scholars and Sheikhs need to take a more active role in preaching on, as well as counseling parents about. Of course, there is nothing wrong with people marrying from the same ethnic group; the more the similarities, the higher the chance of success rates in those unions. However, the primary standards of compatibility in marriage are religiousness and character. The blocking of marriage of men to women purely based on ethnic differences or darker skin is repugnant. This has to be reiterated over and over again from the pulpits as well as mentioned at matrimonial sessions during our Islamic conferences.
With all of that being said, the Muslim community is blessed in that we have more ethnic inclusion and cooperation among Muslims than any other faith community in the world. It is one of the many blessings of being part of an Ummah that has Hajj as a pillar, bringing together 300-101 people from all over the globe. It is, however, important that we take an honest assessment of where we are with intra-Muslim racism in the West, so we can improve it. We cannot deal effectively with the issue of growing Islamophobia from America to the United Kingdom and beyond, if we are divided based upon ethnicity and color and practicing racism among ourselves.